Blog: An angry Dutchman (white)

White Dutch people have recently entered the second stage of grief over losing their colonial innocence: anger, says Paul Bijl. For decades they thought that racist injustice, slavery, colonialism and mass killings were more characteristics of the Germans, Americans, British and French. Since decolonization, therefore, the Dutch have remained in the first of the five stage of grief proposed by the Swiss-American psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, namely denial.

Dutch postcolonial innocence
Throughout the twentieth century, the Dutch have time and again rediscovered that they had a colonial past which was pretty bloody, but each time they responded by claiming that they never knew and that somebody—the government, historians, veterans, the media or Indo-Europeans—must have hidden this from them. In recent years, however, pressure has been mounting, with the result that this show of innocence has proven less and less tenable.

From denial to anger
Groups and activists have pointed  out the awkward affinities between slavery, contemporary racism and the Dutch tradition of Black Peter as well as the mass killings of Indonesian civilians in several villages in the late 1940s. Less and less able to keep up their eternal surprise (“OMG, did we do that? Who hid this from us?”), the Dutch have now turned to anger. Every year I teach a class at the University of Amsterdam on Black Peter.  For many years,  the majority of my fifty, mostly white, 18-year-old students held that nothing needed to be done about this figure.  This year, however, things were different. They gnashed their teeth and rolled their eyes, but said: alright, if we MUST. An angry, reluctant grudge was also palpable in the legally enforced apologies issued by the Dutch state to the widows of the Javanese village of Rawagede. Apologies were only issued for these killings, while the prime minister held that this was not a change of policy.

Activism works: What’s next?
For now, one conclusion can be drawn: activism works and critics like Quinsy Gario and Jeffry Pondaag are truly helping the Dutch to move on. The hardest part for the Dutch will be to incorporate these histories into their rosy self-image of valiant fighters for sovereignty against the Spanish in their “Golden Age” and their victimhood under the National-Socialist occupation in the 1940s. Oh, and of course their beloved invention of tolerance, gay marriage and liberal drug laws. As these histories of slavery and colonialism are expelled and no longer seen as parts of national history, they could be placed in a separate compartment. The question is: what will come next? According Kübler-Ross we can expect bargaining (“We dug up the Borobudur, didn’t we?”), depression (“What will our gravestones say? No better than a Yankee or a Kraut?”) and, finally, acceptance— and hopefully some German-style self-critical awareness (“Wir haben es doch gewusst”: “We knew all along.”).

  • Anne
    Posted at 07:42h, 24 November Reply

    Of course Dutch people know what happened during the Golden Ages. Nobody denies that or wants to cover it up. Take a walk in the Rijksmuseum and take a look at the paintings. During that time slavery was not perceived as immoral and slavery was not only common among “black’ people. In the social context of todays society we look back at it with shame. Our democracy advocates equal rights and offers humanitarian help to those in need. It’s a sharp contrast compared to the Golden Ages. Black Peter is perceived as a celebration of those times. Black Peter is an important tradition to the Dutch. One of the few traditions that is celebrated in all parts of the Netherlands. Parents have celebrated Saint Nicolas with Black Peter and want to pass this tradition to their own children. It is an important part of their Dutch identity. For the Dutch Black Peter has nothing to do with slaverny. The international discussion about Black Peter is therefore not understood by the Dutch and is perceived as a threat to their cultural heritage. There are few Dutch traditions left in their multicultural society. For foreigners it is difficult to understand what Black Peter is about, but I as a Dutchie I can say it is not meant to be discriminatory. It might not be understood by others who were not brought up in this cultural framework.

    • gerald
      Posted at 16:37h, 24 November Reply

      I was born and raised in the Netherlands, but my parents are from Suriname. in the last 45 years, I think I have been exposed enough to “this cultural framework” to know that there is most definitely a racist aspect to the character of Black Pete. In the 70s and 80s he had this faux Surinamese accent, which we conveniently forget nowadays. Another thing is, that to celebrate a time frame in which you colonialized and enslaved entire countries seems inappropriate when you have so many descendants now living in the Netherlands, from Indonesian to Surinamese and Antillian. By saying that we do not understand, you still seem to think that we are less intelligent than you. Believe me, we do understand. You should understand that the Netherlands have changed over the years. And in fact, I am just as Dutch as you are (at least on paper), yet you call me “Niet Westerse allochtoon” to imply that I am less of a person than you. That whole aspect of turning your ex colonial resources into second rate citizens is discriminatory to begin with. As well as the audacity to state that we don’t understand your culture.

  • Han
    Posted at 14:44h, 24 November Reply

    ^ @Anne: I agree it’s not /meant/ to be racist, but objectively it just is.. Black Peter is a typical Golliwog/blackface caricature with the fully blacked up face, red lips, golden earrings, afro hair, etc.

    The main thing I question about this article is how it’s all neatly linked to colonialism, slavery and mass killings. Those things are objective fact, as you acknowledge, but it seems a little to easy to link it all together and make the Saint Nicholas tradition a sign of denial.

  • Nina Anthonijsz
    Posted at 17:05h, 24 November Reply

    It does not matter if there is any ill intent or not. If you are made aware that something deeply hurts another, you apologize, tell them you did not mean to hurt them, and quit your offensive behavior.
    That is what civilized people do.

  • Melissa
    Posted at 17:56h, 24 November Reply

    The Dutch claim to see the Black Pete tradition as non discriminatory, but one cannot deny that the term Black Pete has often been used to make racist jokes towards people of African descent in the Netherlands. Some black children are teased and called Zwarte Piet at school, adults at work. There are many stories of teachers who find it funny to point out that dark children don’t need to paint themselves black, because they are dark enough already. Even our Prime minister Rutte made the same ‘ joke’ on television once when asked about Zwarte Piet. These stories are casually brushed off as jokes that musn’t be taken seriously. I cannot fathom how this complete disconnect can be present in the mind of the Dutch. Zwarte Piet is a ractist caricature handed down by racist forefathers. I think the Dutch must come clean with their racist past and change Zwarte Piet. It wouldn’t be the first change Piet has gone through. Piet used to be a ‘nikker’. Besides a derogatory term for people of African descent, this also means that he was a figure used to scare children into obedience. This has changed. Zwarte Piet is now a child-friendly caricature that has an uncanny resemblance to the Dutch Blackfaces of the past. You only need to google ‘Sjors en Sjimmie’, ‘Moriaantje’, ‘Sambo’ , ‘Oliepietje bij de negertjes’, ‘Oki en Doki bij de nikkers’ to find out that the Dutch also had Blackface. They were in children’s books. I find it hard to believe that the Dutch claim that there is no ill intent. Even when presented with the evidence, they still hang on to a racist tradition for dear life. I don’t think there is enough nostalgia in the world that can morally justify the preservation of a nationally celbrated Zwarte Piet in 2015 and the years to come.

  • Jeroen
    Posted at 10:51h, 25 November Reply

    Part of the problem is that when the indigenous (autochtoon) Dutch have problems with foreign cultures they are told that you have to respect other peoples culture.

    For example, for the Dutch, forcing woman to wear a scarf (hoofddoek) outdoors is an example of female suppression. (girls have to start wearing them from 12-13 years old so it is by no means a free choice.). It’s offensive for us. The same can be said from het offerfeest (Festival of the Sacrifice) in which animals are butchered without anaesthetic. Which for the Dutch is incredibly cruel.

    Now what would happen if the indigenous Dutch would start a campaign against the Woman’s Scarfs and Festival of the Sacrifice (and these are just two examples)? People would be outraged because of the Dutch lack of respect for their culture.

    But now that the roles are reversed nobody respects the Dutch traditions but try to force them to change it because they are offended by it. And that is why the people are mad. Respect and tolerance goes both ways and currently people refuse to look at their own traditions but are highly critical about the Dutch ones.

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